Incorruptible (Ltd. Digipak)
"The phrase ‘only time will tell’ features a lot in music reviews, certainly in mine. Over the years, I’ve had to listen to hundreds of albums and put pen to paper in double-quick time to submit my thoughts in time for the deadline. All too frequently, I have to make a snap decision about whether I like something and sometimes I’ll add in the caveat ‘only time will tell’ to buy myself a little breathing space regarding a record’s long term status and whether it’s a classic or the band’s best. Sometimes, I get my reviews right and sometimes I get them wrong.
When it comes to Iced Earth, I have to hold my hands up and admit to getting it very wrong. I’m a long term fan of the Indiana metal band, discovering them in the late 90s via ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. This is the album lauded by many as the band’s best and I certainly hold it in high regard. However, with interest piqued, I delved into the back catalogue and I also enjoy the vast majority of their earlier material, favouring ‘Night of the Stormrider’ if my life depended on it. In terms of the post- ‘Something…’ era, I lapped up ‘Horror Show’ and ‘The Glorious Burden’, both of which are fabulous records. Their unique blend of classic metal, power metal and thrash has proved to be a potent formula amongst their ever-growing army of fans, myself included.
More recent output, beginning with 2007’s ‘Framing Armageddon: Something Wicked Part 1’ and ending in 2014 with ‘Plagues of Babylon’ garnered very positive reviews from me in the pages of Powerplay Magazine. However, as time has told, I don’t return to them as frequently as I thought that I would. If I want a fix of Iced Earth, I’ll tend to go for something older. In fact, as I type, I’m hard-pressed to remember very much from any of these more recent albums.
Many will point to the instability of the line-up and, in particular, the frequent changes of the vocalist. However, I think that’s unfair. Matt Barlow will remain a fan favourite since he stood front and centre over some of the best material of the band’s career. That’s unavoidable. However, Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens did an excellent job on a couple of records including the aforementioned ‘The Glorious Burden’ and then, after a brief return for Barlow with ‘The Crucible of Man: Something Wicked Part 2’, Iced Earth have since 2011, turned to ex-Into Eternity vocalist Stu Block to deliver their diatribes. And make no mistake; he does a very good job, sounding very similar to both Barlow and Owens when delivering in the lower and higher registers respectively.
The revolving door syndrome that has affected almost every other position within the band is not entirely to blame either, although it can’t have been the most conducive atmosphere in which to create high quality music. Neither can Schaffer’s ongoing medical problems which fortunately have never drastically curtailed his endeavours. At the end of the day, this is Jon Schafer’s band; he founded Iced Earth and he remains the central creative force, creating most the material and having a say in just about everything else.
With that said, all of the albums between 2007 and 2014 have some very good material on them and I’m in no way saying that they are bad. It is just that they haven’t stood the test of time with me.
This time around however, with no deadlines or time constraints, I could listen in more detail and form a much firmer opinion over the material. And the material in question is the ten songs that feature on ‘Incorruptible’, the twelfth album in the Iced Earth discography.
The accompanying press release sees the ever-confident and bullish Shafer referring to this album as one of their strongest and whilst I approached this hyperbole with caution, I now must agree with him. Having allowed this album to burrow deeper into my brain than many others, I feel much more confident in delivering a very positive review of ‘Incorruptible’. I shall go so far as to stick my neck out and venture that this record is the best material to emanate from the Iced Earth camp since ‘The Glorious Burden’, possibly even longer. Indeed, alongside vocalist Stu Block, in-out drummer Brent Smedley, bassist Luke Appleton and new lead guitarist Jake Dreyer, Schaffer has clearly hit a rich vein of form with ‘Incorruptible’.
What I like about this album so much is that it manages to blend powerful riffs and heavy music with plenty of melody and strong choruses to make the music truly memorable and rather addictive. Add in to the mix a sense of theatrics, drama and storytelling for which Iced Earth have become known and synonymous and suddenly things start to stack up in the right way.
Given the dark album cover complete with the ubiquitous Set Abominae character, I was expecting something more along the lines of ‘The Dark Saga’ with this record. But what I actually get is more of a ‘Something Wicked…’ vibe, where just about every track delivers something that makes me bang my head, smile or reach for the repeat button. There will no doubt be some who suggest that Iced Earth are cynically trying to recapture the magic of ‘Something Wicked…’ but I humbly disagree. Of course there are some similarities but on ‘Incorruptible’, I hear some of that magic that has imbued all classic Iced Earth material, whatever the era, whoever the clientele.
Kicking off with a dark and theatrical, almost cinematic intro, ‘Great Heathen Army’ offers fans of this band a thoroughly rousing and raucous opening salvo. Block screams and croons with gusto, the rhythm section pounds away and those trademark fast-picked rhythm guitars of Schafer create some tasty riffs. The chorus is a bit of a grower too, blossoming into a full-blown anthem after a few spins.
One of the most ear-catching aspects of Iced Earth on this record though, is the lead guitar work of newbie Jake Dreyer. His lead breaks litter the opener but they have a genuinely melodic edge to them, transforming the solos into something more nuanced than just a gratuitous shred-fest. To further illustrate this point, just check out the fabulous ballad-esque ‘Raven Wing’, complete with lush acoustic guitars. It is here that Dreyer indulges in some lead work that is full of depth, subtlety and bluesy soul, as well as the necessary all-out shred. It doesn’t do any harm that the entire song itself is a well-crafted monster, but it is the lead work alongside the changes in pace and heaviness that leaves the greatest impression.
The variety of the music is also a definite strength of ‘Incorruptible’ too. This is not a one-dimensional album and it benefits greatly as a direct result. You get the mid-tempo stompers like ‘Black Flag’ which in itself is a muscular metal track laced with plenty of melody. And there are the more sombre and brooding compositions like ‘The Veil’ which arguably features my favourite chorus on the record, one that I find myself humming at the most unexpected of times, unable to dislodge it from my head.
Then there’s the short, sharp and intense thrash blitzkrieg of ‘Seven Headed Whore’ with its intro riff that’s instantly reminiscent of Slayer in their prime followed by the potent combination of machine-gun drumming and matching riffs. In contrast, ‘Brothers’ is imbued with a satisfying groove that’s infectious as hell.
‘Ghost Dance (Awaken The Ancestors)’ is an instrumental but far from being a snooze-fest, it is actually one of the most intriguing tracks on the record. I find the tribal vocals fascinating and a really nice touch whilst I’m genuinely taken by the pronounced, powerhouse drumming that is a firm feature of the track.
And ‘Incorruptible’ ends in fitting Iced Earth style with a slightly longer track, ‘Clear The Way (December 13th, 1862)’. At just shy of ten minutes, it isn’t the longest epic that Schaffer has ever penned but it does still pack a punch. Complete with occasional Celtic overtones, a certain amount of quiet homage to Iron Maiden and the sounds of war, it tells a story within the Battle of Fredericksburg to great effect. It’s a glorious romp and the perfect way to end such a glorious album.
Mind you, I’m struggling to pick out any of the songs on ‘Incorruptible’ that demonstrate a lessening of the quality as I genuinely like them all. In that respect, this has to be the most consistent record from Iced Earth for a significant number of years. In fact, as I alluded to earlier, this is without doubt their best release since ‘The Glorious Burden’ and it pushes the likes of ‘Horror Show’ and ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ as one of their best ever releases. In short, ‘Incorruptible’ is unmistakeably the sound of Iced Earth firing on all cylinders and I love it." - Blog Of Much Metal